Boston Red Sox 2015 preview: Getting younger and better
Kentucky’s John Calipari has controversially spent the last five years annually graduating champion-caliber underclassmen, only to recruit a brand new class of freshmen, who inevitably work their way back to the Final Four.
This March, while Calipari tries to lead this year’s iteration of Wildcats to an undefeated NCAA championship, John Henry will be in Fort Myers doing the same: putting together a new core of Red Sox players for the fifth time in as many years.
“I don’t know I’d be willing to finish last every other year to finish first every other year,” said Henry in late January.
Yet, that’s what the deal has been: success in 2011, shortened by collapse; despair in 2012, gilded with departures; the precipice of championship in 2013, paired with the crevice of failure in 2014.
This spring, Larry Lucchino challenged the Red Sox to “win with frequency.” Armed with the return of old friends, superstar additions, and one of the deepest farm systems in baseball, the Red Sox will work end their annual overhauling, and focus on a tradition of winning.
While management would be quick to laud the contracts they landed in free agency this winter, there is no doubt that Jon Lester is “the one who got away.”
It had seemed like the plan all along, that dealing Lester at the deadline last summer would shake the dust of failed negotiations of spring 2014 so conversations could start anew in winter, but Chicago’s GM Theo Epstein did for the Cubs what he had done so well with the Red Sox, and he got his man.
The vacuum left by Lester’s leadership and clutch performance took more than one piece to fill, as the Red Sox went out and immediately signed former farmhand Justin Masterson and flipped Yoenis Cespedes — the ransom for dealing Lester in July — for Detroit’s Rick Porcello.
Boston would later opt for Wade Miley as their fifth starter, dealing Rubby De La Rosa to Arizona in exchange.
At bat, Boston made moves to rectify an offense that was in the bottom-third in the American League in run production in 2014.
The Red Sox dealt underperforming third baseman Will Middlebrooks to San Diego for journeyman catcher and Massachusetts native Ryan Hanigan. Hanigan, who spent 2014 with Tampa Bay, and barely had a locker in San Diego before returning to the East Coast, is likely insurance for a Red Sox battery which includes prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart.
More importantly, it was the signing of Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval that made way for the Sox to move Middlebrooks in the first place.
Sandoval, a month removed from recording the final out of the World Series, was part of a blockbuster Thanksgiving week for the Red Sox, which also included the return of former Top 100 prospect, Hanley Ramirez.
Ramirez was Boston’s shortstop of the future when he was dealt to the Marlins in 2005 and anchored the hot corner for the Dodgers last year, but, at age 32, Ramirez is making the move to the outfield where he will be charged with guarding the Green Monster.
Though he is no longer the youthful prospect he was a decade ago, Ramirez will likely prove a useful mentor to Xander Bogaerts, who hopes to find his groove as Boston’s shortstop this season.
A lesser move that had Red Sox fans scratching their heads this winter was the trade of Anthony Ranaudo to Texas for left-hander Robbie Ross Jr. While Ranaudo seemed like a candidate for the 2015 rotation, the addition of Masterson, Porcello and Miley seemed to spell “bullpen” for Ranaudo. Similar to Ranaudo, Ross was the more proven reliever and a lefty, so Boston and Texas made the switch.
Every position in the outfield comes with a questionmark for Boston, though some more pronounced than others.
Will Ramirez successfully make the switch to left field? While Fenway is likely the most difficult left field in baseball, the answer likely doesn’t much matter. In Ramirez, the Sox add a .283 hitter who had 71 RBIs a year ago on a Dodgers team that was fifth in baseball in run production. A quick look at his spray chart and its clear Ramirez will have a lot of interaction with the Monster this year, offensively and defensively.
Who plays center? The Sox let Jacoby Ellsbury walk last winter in favor of Jackie Bradley Jr. and while JBJ was dazzling defensively, he was anything but at the plate. With the season a wash, second-baseman-turned-outfielder Mookie Betts took hold of his chance and batted .291 with 5 home runs. He further proved his versatility spending time at second base and in right field as well as sharing time in center with JBJ and Cuban prospect Rusney Castillo.
How long will Shane Victorino stay in Right? See also: Who plays center? With Castillo and Betts both poised to make the jump to the major leagues, an aging and injured Victorino will only be able to live off his 2013 postseason heroics so long, when (not if) he starts faltering, the Red Sox are going to have to make some hard choices about the 34-year-old.
What to do with a saturated outfield: If one thing is clear, there are too many options for the Sox in the outfield. It’s a good problem to have, no doubt, but in addition to the players previously mentioned, the Red Sox have Allen Craig, who is too versatile (and too expensive) to leave off the opening day roster, but he has no place. Brock Holt fast became a fan favorite in 2014, doing everything but work grounds crew as one glimmer in an otherwise disappointing season. Daniel Nava was the Red Sox opening day right fielder in 2014 and has done all he can to be of value, but likely Craig, Nava, and Holt will be trade bait, the question is when?
The infield has its own questions as well. Is Bogaerts the shortstop of the future? As is the case with Jackie Bradley Jr., likely this has little to do with how Bogaerts plays defensively, but whether or not he can hit. Though he committed 20 errors a year ago — 10 at shortstop and at third base — it was clear that mentally he was more at home as a shortstop. In 44 games at third base in 2014, Bogaerts struggled severely, batting just .182, as compared to .266 throughout another 99 games at shortstop. The 22-year-old has hit two home runs already in just five games this spring, but Boston owes him the chance to play a full season away from third base.
What about Mike Napoli? Cal Ripken and Lou Gehrig have never had worry about Napoli approaching their records for longevity, but that doesn’t mean Napoli hasn’t been serviceable during his time in Boston. Hip ailments that nearly derailed negotiations two years ago never became a problem, but in 2014, Napoli was limited to 119 games after being plagued by everything from back issues to sleep apnea. At the very least, potential injuries make Craig a bit more valuable.
Who catches? When the Red Sox finally jumped ship on the polarizing AJ Pierzynski last season, all the hype was for Puerto Rican prospect Christian Vazquez. While Vazquez was clearly an upgrade from Pierzynski defensively, early offensive success eventually slowed and Vazquez ended the season with a .240 average. On the farm, the switch-hitting Swihart projects to be a franchise player in the making. Scouting reports critique Swihart’s obviously small physique, but his arm strength has already made itself known in spring training. While both players are Top 100 Prospects, Swihart — who grew up a shortstop — is already the No. 6 catching prospect in baseball, currently. Building his body to be MLB ready will likely take Swihart some time, but that may be all the time Vazquez has to win the job.
The void left by Lester going into this season is clear, but manager John Farrell has not allowed it to be an issue, telling Boston media that, “The number one for us is going to be that night, the guy that pitches that night.”
While everyone in the organization was quick to downplay the importance of a traditional “ace,” they may be right.
At the moment, the Boston rotation figures to shake out like this: opening day is Clay Buchholz’ job to lose, with Porcello, Masterson, Joe Kelly and Miley slotted in behind him.
Now, none of those pitchers jump out to anyone as a clear-cut ace, but most of them have been the hot hand more than once in their careers.
Buchholz has had All-Star seasons cut short by injuries, Porcello out-pitched Justin Verlander last season, Masterson figured to be a key postseason acquisition for the Cardinals at the deadline, Kelly was part of a core of young pitching prospects that brought St. Louis to the World Series in 2013, and Miley notched a team-leading 16 wins for the Diamondbacks in 2012 and lead Arizona in strikeouts and innings pitched a year ago.
Let’s say they all pitch like aces. If all five pitchers matched their career-high win totals, Boston starters would account for 72 Red Sox wins this year.
But let’s say they just pitch to their career average? If that is the case, Buchholz would emerge as the true ace of this team and Boston starters would account for 62 wins this season with a bullpen that notched an additional 21 wins in 2014. Add those 83 wins to a bolstered offense and the Red Sox have the potential for an 85-90 win season.
Farrell may not need for every pitcher to be an ace, but he does need them to be average.
If we’re hoping for average, one thing remains true: 85-90 wins is a playoff team, but champions need an ace. Madison Bumgarner proved that last fall. If none of these pitchers emerges as an ace, the Sox have to go get one.
Cole Hamels’ name was thrown around a lot in the offseason, but the price of prospects was too high, now with Cliff Lee suffering injuries early on, that seems even less likely.
Sox prospect Henry Owens is someone who could further energize this team in the summer months. Owens spent the majority of last year in double-A Portland, where he worked for 14 wins and a 2.60 ERA. He went 3-1 in 6 games with triple-A Pawtucket to end the year. Owens will likely start the season with the Pawsox once again, but he figures to get his looks with the big club more than once this season.
That success has not gone unnoticed around the league. Owens has been the asking price in many trade talks for the last year, including Hamels. One thing’s for sure: Owens will factor into the 2015 season, either with the Red Sox, or without them.
The issue at the center of the Red Sox bullpen questions is simple: How reliable is Koji Uehara? Koji hit a personal best 26 saves in 2014, beating out his 21 saves from 2013, but he also hit a high-water mark with 11 decisions, culminating in five losses from five blown saves.
Uehara was rarely used in save situations before coming to Boston, where he took over the job after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey both had season ending injuries. It was his reliability at the end of games that dominated the Red Sox postseason run.
That’s the Koji that Red Sox ownership hopes to see at the end of games after re-signing the 39-year-old reliever to a two year, $18 million dollar deal this past October.
It’s a vote of confidence, for sure, but that confidence also comes with the promise of a bullpen that has steadily improved over the last three seasons. A blend of new faces and developed prospects ready to make the jump will round out this year’s pen.
When Uehara had his struggles, Junichi Tazawa came into his own and developed as a bona fide reliever (specifically as a setup man, but with the ability to close).
Brandon Workman — who had 15 starts last year — will see full-time bullpen duty this year with the promise of building consistency at the major league level, while Edward Mujica and Craig Breslow will try to put last year behind them and reclaim the success they exhibited in 2013.
Boston also added Alexi Ogando at the end of January, and he, too, seems to have the eye of management. The Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham tweeted last week that, “Today was at least the 3rd time Farrell has said he feels Alexi Ogando can be a key part of the #RedSox bullpen.”
The former Texas Rangers set up man Alexi Ogando on a one-year deal. A one-time All-Star, Ogando will also be looking to bounce back from a sub-par 2014 where he notched a 6.84 ERA, 3.5 points above his career average.
Opening day lineup
Mookie Betts CF
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Pablo Sandoval 3B
David Ortiz DH
Hanley Ramirez LF
Mike Napoli 1B
Shane Victorino RF
Xander Bogaerts SS
Christian Vazquez C
Promising as the Red Sox season projects to be, Bostonians could arguably be more excited to get out of the city this season and travel to Portland or Pawtucket to see the depth the Red Sox have added to their system.
In these five years, likely this is the most depth the Boston Red Sox have showcased with their big club, with multiple options at every position, and subsequently, that has translated to an even deeper farm system. Already mentioned are players like Holt and Nava who could miss the opening day roster due to sheer numbers, and Owens and Swihart who still need time to develop, but here are five players to watch for in the mid-summer months, or who could be the Red Sox of the future:
Yoan Moncada — Undoubtedly one of the most exciting additions to an MLB organization this offseason, but it is unlikely the 19-year-old will see time with the Red Sox this year. Having just arrived to the US, early indicators are Moncada will stay in extended spring training once the Sox break camp. By all accounts, Moncada is a pure athlete with power from both sides of the plate. A natural second baseman, he’ll likely have to switch positions to break in past Pedroia, but that jump is still a ways off, so what his eventual position is, remains to be seen. What is certain is he will be seen.
Matt Barnes — A top-10 prospect in the organization, Barnes spent some time in the pen at the end of last year. Barnes started 22 games at triple-A Pawtucket in 2014 and could very well earn a bullpen spot coming out of spring training this year. More than likely, he will follow Ranaudo as trade bait. Both he and Owens look to be major league ready, but with teams looking to poach the lefty Owens, look for the Red Sox to try to sell Barnes instead.
Rusney Castillo — There was a time when this header could have read “Mookie Betts,” but one of the biggest questions entering 2015 is quickly being answered this spring, and it’s not good for Castillo. As soon as Hanley Ramirez projected to start the season in left field, the battle between Betts, Bradley Jr. and Castillo was on. Poised for competition, Castillo pulled his oblique in the first game of the spring and hasn’t seen time since. Betts, on the other hand, has gone 8-for-18 with two doubles and a triple already. Plenty of speculation suggests Betts will make his home in right field if and when Castillo can earn a spot in center, but that won’t be on opening day.
Eduardo Rodriguez — It seemed like a throw-away move at the deadline last July when the Sox dealt Andrew Miller to Baltimore for the minor-league Rodriguez, but he is getting his attention this spring. The 21-year-old Venezuelan has thrown 5.2 clean innings this spring after posting a 0.96 ERA in the Sox system last summer. More than likely, Rodriguez will start the year working in Pawtucket as a starter and may not see work at the MLB level until rosters expand in September, but with a mid-size frame and speed in the low-90s he could show dominance at the triple-A level.
Garin Cecchini — With the high-profile infielders Boston has loaded into its system, it can’t be easy to stand out, but Cecchini has just a bit of an edge having spent the end of September manning third base for the Red Sox. Sandoval, despite the questions of his weight, has managed to be on the field regularly the past two seasons, so any hopes of playing time are going to come at the triple-A level. Cecchini is hitting .294 through six games this spring, which is enough to earn him a midseason look, but more often than not, his call will either come if a move is made at the deadline, or he will be part of a move himself.
I set the over/under earlier in this article at 85 wins, and at this point in the spring, I’m taking the over for a final record of 87-75. More importantly, I think it will be enough to win the AL East. This will be a weak year for the division that should be seeing more parity after the Orioles and Rays began to challenge the Boston/New York monopoly that dominated the mid-2000s. But Tampa has been stripped for parts this offseason, while Baltimore was mostly stagnant after being exposed by Kansas City in the 2014 ALCS. The Yankees will always be contenders, but they have major questions in the infield and rotation.
Position by position, I think the Red Sox are better than Toronto. A title in the East, however, does not a champion make. There is a high ceiling for this Red Sox team, especially given the offensive power they’ve seen from youth early on in the spring, but ultimately it’s the absence of a sure No. 1 starter that will be their downfall in the postseason. Fix that concern at the trade deadline and this team can contend for the pennant this October. By building around youth, this Red Sox team could be contending “with frequency” for many Octobers to come.